Thursday, 23 October 2014

You are your own worst critic, and your own best teacher.

At present I team-teach an ATAR class with my mentor (in other words, I get to do all the fun stuff and he marks their work for me). These kids are really lovely, not a single douchebag or mean-spirit among them. Which makes it hard to get mad at them when they don't listen, or follow my advice, or do anything remotely helpful to their education. But hey, I've been there and done that and I failed Year 11 myself, so I can hardly blame them. No point in assuming a teenager will believe you when you say you know what's best for them.

Anyway my point is, I've been trying to get these guys to become more reflective on themselves as learners, or, if you wanna use edu-wank, metacognitive. I've been trying to tell them that by this point in their schooling lives, they should have a fairly good idea of who they are, what they're good at and what they struggle with. They should be able to recognise when they're taking risks, making mistakes or not grasping something. 

But it's weird, because they don't. These lovely teenagers, who are way more mature, respectful and clever than I remember being at that age, have absolutely no idea where their own abilities lie. Some of them become so overly critical of themselves that they are blinded by futility, unable to recognise their own strengths and opportunities to improve. This stumps me, because I can teach you how to write an essay, I can teach which conventions mean what, I can teach you how to break down a question or a marking key... but I can't teach you how to think for yourself. And I've discovered that too often students are so busy trying to guess how to make the teacher happy that they forget about themselves. 

Tomorrow, I want to tell them that if they don't know who they are, everything else is pointless. You can have a supportive home environment, an amazing teacher, top of the range resources and a work ethic to rival Stephen King, but if you don't understand yourself, you will be fumbling around in the dark. If you know yourself and believe in yourself, everything becomes so much easier. I remembered a clip from Scrubs that addresses this really well, will show my students tomorrow.

Funny how in this video Dr. Cox expresses the realisation I had in my first blog post. Perhaps it stuck in my mind somewhere; advice from a fictional character to a different sort of intern, in a similar sort of situation to me. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Essential questions.

Today I rolled up my metaphorical sleeves and did some explicit teaching of essay structure with my new Year 8 class.

Factors to consider:

-They were having immunisations that morning and were rather distracted at the thought of being jabbed with pointy things. 
-I had taken antihistamines for my raging hayfever and as a result was feeling a bit spacey. 
-Essay structure, in their opinion, has nothing to do with their debating task (little do they know...)
-I still don't know everyone's name. 

All in all, it went well! Kids all learnt something they didn't know before. Or at the very least, they pretended to. They were all involved, the environment was positive AND they said it went fast (most often a sign of a good lesson, as my mentor teacher once explained to me). 

I'm feeling much more relaxed this term. Might be because I'm no longer being assessed -I'm so close to being qualified I can smell it- or it might be because I've been left to my own devices for most of the classes I teach, which is fun, if I don't overthink everything. 

This term I'm trying a new thing with lesson planning where I ask myself three questions. This is how I worked out my lessons this morning. 

1. What am I teaching? 

Essay structure. Bo-ring. I've learned that in my experience this is the least important question to consider when planning. Kinda annoyed at myself that it took me this long to realise. 

2. How am I teaching it? 

Well, I don't know the class too well, but they didn't love reading the stuff I handed out last lesson. And they do love chatting. And moving around. And drawing pictures. So let's try to work with what they like. 

So first we did an active brainstorm, where they got to pop up out of their seat and share an idea. Then I drew a diagram on the board for essay structure, with labels. Gave them some time to discuss each section and how they would explain the labels. Chose pairs at random to share, paraphrased, wrote on board. Copy it down, minions. After that they put back together an essay "puzzle" that I had given to each group; figuring out which sentence went where. 
So they got to: 
- Move
- Draw 
- Write 
- Discuss 
- Arrange
- Justify
Of course, this doesn't happen every lesson. But if I was a better teacher, it might. 

And finally, the most important question. 

3. Why am I teaching it? 

If I don't know the answer to this (and 'because they need to know' is simply not good enough), then it doesn't matter how much content I try to jam down their throats, or how engaging and fun I make the lesson activities- my students will not want to learn. Another way to word the question might be "Why are they learning it?" and the beautiful thing about teenagers is that they have no fear in asking, "Why do I have to know this, Miss? What's in it for me?" 

If I can't give them a decent answer straight away, I'm not doing my job properly. And I care very much about doing my job properly. 

So, why am I teaching essay structure? Because formal writing is a game and to play a game well, you need to know the rules. You need to know when to follow them, and when to break them. Or as I told my Year 8s, you need to know what the skeleton looks like before you flesh it out. Or you could end up with a headless man. 

It was a fun double-period and the students really enjoyed the activities and games (from what I could tell). I'll think back on this morning whenever I have a shiddy day. 

I'm starting to think I'm getting the hang of this. I no longer feel like I'm barely keeping my head above water from one moment to the next. It's good to believe that I sometimes know what I'm doing :)

Friday, 17 October 2014

Fun lessons and boring meetings.

Be warned, this is a huge post. Get your skim on if you don't wanna come along on my journey through time.

Yesterday was a prime example of my hectic teacher lyfe. Even when you're teaching the same classes in the same school, every day is so different and sometimes I go through way more emotions than I thought I had.

Before period 1: Happy, listening to music.
Still before period 1: Serious, confused and slightly offended- talking to The Grad about all the things I don't know, and trying to respond to the statement "I hope you don't burn out next year." (Seriously what do I say to that? "thanks, me too?") 

Period 1: Self-assured. New class is listening to me... Oh look, Second-Mentor/Acting Dean is walking past.. Um, what was I saying. Now feeling easily distracted. Off to the library. Yes, you will read in silence. No, four of you cannot giggle over one magazine. Seriously guys I can see you talking. I CAN SEE YOU. I wear glasses but I'm not blind. Stahp. Stubborn determination leads to triumphant victory as they all shut up and read. Now I feel kinda guilty.. 

Period 2 (DOTT): Phew, thank god that's over. I didn't think I could stand another second of silence. Walk back to English office. Escort year 12 student (their last day and he is dressed up as a teacher) out of office and to Intern 3's class. Intern 3 said he had food but I don't see any. I'm out. 

Period 2 (still on DOTT): Happy, talking to Mentor. Less happy listening to Mentor. Proceed to sass/yell at Mentor. Escape to intern office and curl up on the floor, wondering if Mentor now hates me. Comforted by Intern 1. No longer angry but pretty guilty. 

Morning tea: Content, setting up food with Intern 1 and Intern 5 (who isn't actually an intern but that's another story). Guilt and tension creeps back and I go take some food to Mentor. Mentor isn't mad at me (at least he says he's not). Relieved. 

Period 3: Excited! Rowdy kids are making posters today and everyone is into it. I've enlisted the help of Mentor and Intern 3 to role-play advertising pitches, using posters the kids have created. We have to try to sell something unsellable and it could all go horribly wrong but hey, let's give it a try. I pitch 'stalkers', Intern 3 pitches 'a bloody shirt' and Mentor pitches 'Roadkill'. (They're learning advertising conventions, I swear). Roleplay is a success! Kids voted for their fave, we called it a draw but I still think I won. 
Intern 3 and I bail because we have to go to a meeting at uni. Feeling kinda sad I have to ditch this class and not see my other two. 

Meeting: God, this is horrible. What are they saying? What is up with uni teachers and not speaking loudly enough? I'm bored and hungry (no time for lunch, should have eaten more at morning tea) and rapidly running out of patience. Intern 2 and I keep exchanging glances because she has even less patience for pointless stuff than I do. 

Feeling angry. Seriously why are we here? You have given me a worksheet of absolutely no value, not given me enough time to write a decent answer and now you've just admitted you hadn't thought about what you were going to do with the worksheet once we finished it. Even though the sheet says write advice to future interns, apparently you weren't actually going to pass on that advice. So why are we doing this then? Are you fucking with me? Am I being punk'd? 
The problem with being passionate about teaching is that I get really angry at the hypocrisy from people at uni. Don't tell me to make lessons engaging and student-centred if you clearly can't demonstrate that you understand what that means. Anger gives way to annoyance and apathy as we "discuss" the worksheet. (Uni person is doing most of the talking.. I thought you wanted to hear OUR ideas, not your own re-wording of everything we say? You don't have to validate and paraphrase everything, we're not idiots.) 

Feeling distracted at ringing noise in the room. Ah, Science-girl is presenting on dyslexia. Trying to write with my left hand is fun, but impossible. Increased wave of empathy for dyslexic students that I teach. Should probably be making more adjustments. Guilty. 

Intern 3 presents, I click 'next' for the slides. Because I'm a super-nice person and helpful like that. I try not to predict when to change slides this time because last time I did that I went too fast. Feeling proud of Intern 3 and Science-Girl for presenting to a tough crowd. These other interns are way too serious. 

Elation as meeting finally finishes. I'm so hungry! Go grab some food and coffee and meet the others at the tavern. Yay, this is the Friday I'm used to. We remember we are supposed to attend a networking event that possibly involves alcohol. Go suss out event, find out when alcohol is being served and return to the tavern until then. See my dad at the Tav (he works at uni). Hi, Dad!

Back to networking event. Impatience rising. Wait aaaages while people give patronising speeches (I was particularly unimpressed by the 'raise your hand if you're the first person in your family to get a degree.' Way to make yourselves sound like such a big deal, and my family sound like peasants). 

By this time I really need to pee. Feeling uncomfortable. Finally get a moment to run to the bathroom and make it back just in time for group photo. Feeling like a winner. 

Photo done, food and drinks are served and like the flick of a switch, my mood changes to being incredibly proud and thankful to be here, with some of the best people I've ever met.

Despite the peaks and troughs, that's the same emotion most of my days end on. For that I'm pretty lucky. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

It's more than vocabulary.

If I asked you to name one thing you wanted to learn in English (the subject, not the language), what would you say?

Perhaps I should have worded the question differently. Perhaps I should have said I want to hear your honest answers, not what you think I want to hear and not what your old teacher said you need to improve on. That might have gotten me a response that wasn't so deflating.

Okay, quick backtrack, I picked up a new lower-school class this term because their regular teacher is on long service leave. From what I can gather they seem like a mix of very bright and very nice (spot the difference) kids.

I got them to write me a letter because I've heard from various teachers that's a good way to start off - you get to know them and you can see how they write. Along with the usual, 'tell me about yourself', sort of questions, I asked them to explain what they wanted to learn in English.

"I want to get better at spelling"
"I want to write fluent essays"
"I want to learn facts"
"I want to improve my vocabulary"

From a class of 28, those responses were the overwhelming majority. These are sweet kids, but I think it's awful that, in their minds, the most they can get out of English is how to use big words and spell them correctly. Don't get me wrong- spelling, precise vocabulary and written expression are all essential elements of English, but... does an artist want to learn how to hold their brush properly and use an appropriate range of colours, or do they want to make something that's meaningful? That's the motivating force, right?

For me it seems so obvious, but I guess it's hard for a 12 to 13 year old to see that English is a reflection of life, of our world. Our lives are shaped by language. We talk of life as if it's a story. Our memories are like narratives. A good speech can make or break a whole campaign. Saying the right thing at the right time (or the reverse) can have huge consequences. Understanding the layers of meaning behind words, how a writer can change the very way you think, is important, dammit.

I'm being too hard on them. They are only Year 8s. Even my Year 11 students don't really understand the meaning of critical literacy, not just how to analyse a text but why it's important to be able to do that. If you asked most people what was the point in studying English at school they would probably talk about the grammar or spelling side of things, and not the cultural studies element. I guess it's also a reflection on teaching: if this is what they consider to be important in English, what are we as teachers saying to these students? What are we emphasising, and neglecting as a result? If I harp on about spelling does that marginalise symbolism? How the hell do I teach all this stuff and somehow communicate to them what really matters, when I'm not even sure myself?

If I had asked my nerdy Year-8 self what I wanted to get out of this subject, I probably would have answered:
I want to learn how to write in a way that makes someone else feel something.
Which has nothing to do with critical literacy, but it's more than vocabulary.

I'm tired and kinda sad and rambling because I've taken too much antihistamine (dat hay-fever season), so I'm going to leave it there.

Stay tuned for updates on this class - I want to see if I can help them understand that there's more to English than ticks on a spelling test.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Portfolio writing is a real bitch.

Deactivate emotional, heartfelt, idealistic Intern 4 and reactivate the sarcastic, scathing, uni-avoiding, yolo-chucking me that most of the people I work with know and love. (Maybe not love. Tolerate. Definitely tolerate.)

Today I commenced what is quite possibly the worst assignment I've ever had to do. It involves me evaluating myself against the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, providing examples of how I have demonstrated said standards, linking to evidence and creating an action plan for how I'd get better. The evidence and the action plan bits I don't mind, but the reflections kill me. I really really hate being self-reflective, because:

1. I sound like a douchebag. 
2. I worry that I don't sound like enough of a douchebag. 
3. I could run a lesson and it might be the biggest disaster. If I write about it in my portfolio I can make it sounds great, and no one would ever know. 
4. Thinking is hard. 

Sure, I understand the value of writing a huge piece of work that forces you to think about yourself as a teacher (otherwise I'd seem like a real idiot doing this blog thing) but understanding the value of something doesn't make it enjoyable. I understand the value of swimming lessons at the beach, but that doesn't mean I like the ear infections and jellyfish stings. 

It would be easier if I could tell myself it might help me get a job, but working at a school for a year kinda helps you understand that no one considering hiring you has time to read your sixteen page document (plus evidence) detailing how great you are. Ugh, so unnecessary. The only thing this portfolio vaguely helps is a level three teacher application, or so I've been told... but that's a good many years away if I even get the opportunity to apply. 

I'd much rather be using this school holiday time to mark that pile of exams, plan a program for a new class I'm taking on next term, tweak the planning I already have for my other three classes, collect resources, maybe create a website... but no, irrelevant portfolio it is. 

All whinging aside, I am really glad that I have worked at a school for three terms so far, because I don't think I would have as many examples and pieces of evidence to use had I only had a six-week major prac. I feel sorry for other education students who have to do this task and might find themselves grasping at straws. Who knows, maybe I'm just terrible and needed the extra time. 

The silver lining to this cloud of tedium is the other interns. We are all going through the same struggle and we all lack motivation, so it helps to have each other to congratulate, or complain to. Intern 1 is ahead of everyone (duh, that's why she's Intern 1), Intern 2 isn't far behind and Intern 3... well, he will probably start next week sometime. I'm only at the beginning, but everything is planned out and my house is pretty clean so it won't be long before I take a deep breath and get it over with. I can do it. I just don't really want to. 

If you never hear from me again, I was killed by inauthentic uni assignments. Avenge me. 

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Let me introduce myself:

I should have done this sooner, but I'm bad at introductions. I find it easier to talk to someone for a while before going into who I am or what I do. That way you're less likely to get a false impression of me based on my name, title, where I'm from, where I worked, etc. Much better that I make you laugh, or smile (god I hope you're smiling) before we have that awkward intro.

Here's a little bit about me and why I'm rambling at you. 

I'm 23.
I'm Australian- born and raised in Rockingham, W.A. Throw your stones. 
I've been to Europe, the US, Indonesia and New Zealand multiple times, but I've never been to Broome and want to go. 
A little over a year ago I discovered I enjoy helping people learn, and thought I might try teaching. 
I have a degree in Film, and will soon have a GradDipEd in Secondary Education: English and Media. 
I have been told it's hard to tell when I'm being sarcastic and when I'm not. 
I have been told my voice is too loud. (I was tested for poor hearing because of this when I was a kid, hearing is fine, I'm just too loud). 
I love to write, but I had to learn how to do it twice when I was younger, because my cute mirror-writing phase apparently didn't go away. 
I have a caring family I am forever grateful for. 
I have an awesome fiancĂ© and a small group of wonderful friends. 
And I'm an intern! Of the teaching kind. 

What's an intern? 

The university where I study my graduate diploma sent me a letter late last year. I gave it a quick read, thought 'meh', and threw it away. It was about some special scholarship you could apply for where you worked at a school for a whole year instead of doing a six-week major prac. It was called an internship. It sounded sort of interesting, but I worked four days a week and thought I needed more money than the scholarship was offering - plus what if you hated the school? 

Thank god for Facebook. I saw a friend's status talking about how she was going to apply for this amazing opportunity, and saw heaps of people commenting saying they were going to do the same thing. If Intern 1 (that's her name now- we work together!) thinks this is really good, maybe I should reconsider applying, I thought. This is one of those times when peer pressure, unintentional as it was, had a positive outcome. The more I thought about it, the better it sounded. I wouldn't have to work in my competitive sales job. I would get way more experience than the average education student. And I would know for sure whether this teaching gig was the right thing for me. 

Fast-forward 9 months to where we are today, and I'm one of four interns in our English department at a great school. The other interns are practically my sisters and brother- I can't image work without them. I have a crazy-hyperactive mentor teacher who can claim a huge part in helping me make it this far with my sanity attached, along with his friend, Intern 3's mentor- these two are basically mum and dad (or dad and dad, to make them sound even more like a couple). I work with other inspirational colleagues, some who amaze me with their strength and determination. I teach around 100 hilarious, strange, smart, creative teenagers who surprise me all the time. 

Perhaps the most important thing you should know about me, is that I love my job. 

Goal setting.

Shortly before the end of term, my teacher and I ran a goal-setting lesson with our year 10 general English class. 

I should add that this is my favourite class, out of the four that I have (can I say that? Picking favourites is probably something I shouldn't do... but I guess I just did). I'm not entirely sure why. It might be because they're funny, and laid-back, and most of them put in the effort when required and do good work. It might be because they remind me of me, when I was fifteen. When I started teaching them I was apprehensive... I guess I had low expectations of their behaviour and ability, but they are genuinely lovely kids. I found myself telling them stories about my own life; letting them know that I failed year 11 because I didn't believe in myself and that I didn't want to see the same thing happen to them, performing poetry (if you can call it poetry- written by me) whilst standing on top of a desk, telling them how I visited Bebelplatz in Germany where 20,000 books were burned and that is why it's important that we study English. The list goes on. There's something about that class that gives me courage to show them some of myself as a person, not just a teacher. 

That's what I told them when we did goal-setting. As well as setting school/English goals, I told them I wanted to hear about some personal goals, because just as to them I want to be a person, not merely a teacher, I wanted to know them as people, not just English students. They are more than their grades and assessments and written expression, a message I feel is quite often lost in a secondary school context. 

To give them an example, I wrote on the board that my personal goal was to believe in myself more as a teacher. I explained that I often became too emotionally invested in my classes, and dwelled on lessons that didn't go as well as I wanted. To achieve this goal I decided that I had to write down at least one good thing I had done that day, every day. Sometimes it's as trivial as making a joke to stop a behaviour issue, sometimes it's explaining something in a way that everyone understands, sometimes an activity that most enjoy. Once, it was helping a student at tutoring who happily said to me, "I think I'm understanding English for the first time in my life". 

My year 10s set goals about downhill mountain biking, about football, about getting better at their part-time job, and studying more for school. I hope they keep working on their goals. This blog might help me achieve mine.